Liquigas is the first cobbles team profiled not hailing from Northern Europe. Can these fancy-lads from sunny Italy, led by pretty boys like Danilo Di Luca and Fillipo Pozzato compete in the mud and Cobbles?
Read on for info on the stars, gregarios, and outlook for the Green Monsters:
If there is one thing Liquigas has in spades, it is star-power. Four big names lead the Liquigas multi-headed classics attack:
Il Killer di Spoltore: Danilo Di Luca:
The 2005 Protour champion had an off year in '06. Injuries and a change in emphasis from the one day races to the Giro held him back in the spring and he only really got going late in season. 2007 looks to be a different story, as he told Pez:
He doesn't plan to be on form for Milan San Remo, but look for the Killer in the Ardennes. When he's on, he's as good as anyone. Classic highlights: Victories in Lombardia, Fleche Waloon, and Amstel Gold, plus 6 other top 10 finishes in the Ardennes classics.
If ever a man and a race seemed perfectly matched, it's Mags and the Hell of the North. Really, not much needs be said beyond: "He's won Paris-Roubaix, 'nuff said." After a hard crash and more surgeries than I care to think about, Mags reports (magnusbackstedt.com) that he's feeling much less pain and is highly, highly motivated to get back to it. His prep will be unconventional, but there is a good chance he'll be ready for Paris-Roubaix:
Spring Classic Highlights: did I mention he won Paris-Roubaix? He also has a 4th (2005) and 7th (1999) in Paris-Roubaix and 2nd (2004) in Gent-Wevelgem.
Once considered to have a bigger ego than palmares, Pippo came of age in 2006 when he snuck away in the last half kilometer to snatch the victory on the Via Roma. In addition to winning Milan San Remo, Pozzato went on to have a spectacular spring classic season, earning 5th in the Het Volk, 4th in Gent-Wevelgem, 13th in the Ronde and 15 in Paris-Roubaix. No longer riding in the significant shadows cast by Boonen and Bettini, this season will show us the difference between being a talented worker-bee for Lefevere's machine and being a captain in his own right. His objectives for the Spring include MSR, the Ronde and Paris-Roubaix.
Luca Paolini: Paolo Bettini's former top lieutenant, Luca jumped from Quickstep to Liquigas last season with great expectations. Nipping former boss Boonen to get the last podium spot at Milan San Remo seemed to indicate a great start. However, results were hard to come by until the end of the season when he won a Vuelta stage and helped buddy Paolo win the rainbow jersey. For 2007, expect to see Luca help Pippo try and repeat his win in MSR and then focus on the Ronde. He'll be a cobbles man for Liquigas. Now that he's reuinited w/ Pippo, perhaps we'll see more races like the 05 Hew Classics in the future. In his words:My first big objective is Flanders, a race I would love to, indeed , my dream is to win there. (from the Daily Peloton's Liquigas preview)
Spring Classic Highlights: Twice on the podium of Milan San Remo, long work as Bettini's top gregario, Bronze at the '04 World Championship. (Not spring, but impressive! Luca has historically had much more success in the 2nd half of the World Cup than in the spring.)
There is no doubt that Liquigas has star power, but will Pippo and Luca discover that success is harder to come by without Quickstep's army of Belgian flahutes? That may have been a problem in the past, but Liquigas is gaining numbers. Certainly Backstedt, Pozzato, and Paolini working together will help. In addition, Liquigas has:
Roberto Petito: Not a household name, but certainly a good man to have on your side in the cobbles. Petito has had a long career, but quietly has top 10 finishes in the last 2 Rondes (5th 2005 ) & (10th 2006). In addition he has top 10 finishes in Milan San Remo (9th 1998) and the Fleche Walloon (8th 1998).
Francesco Chicchi: Another Quickstep Italian prodigy, Chicchi came to Liquigas w/ Pozzato and has a similar style. Chicchi has a fast finish but has yet to show he's a man for the cobbles. Still, he's been pegged as one to watch and this may be the year.
Enrico Gasparotto: His main claim to fame is wearing the Tricolore in 2005, but young Enrico has been working the northern races for a few years now. Should do quality work for the bosses and has a turn of speed as well.
Outlook: 2007 looks to be much better than a disappointing 2006 for Liquigas. Paolini's podium finish in MSR was a lone high-point for the squad. New arrivials Pozzatto, Petito, & Chicchi bolster the squad, but look for Di Luca's return to the Ardennes & Backstedt's return to the cobbles to make a bigger difference. Liquigas has made a big investment in their spring classics squad, look for them to reap the rewards in the coming months. They'll have better numbers this year, and should have more chances to win.